THE DVD SHELF: "La Grande Illusion," "Jaws" and Stage/Screen Musicals "Newsies," "Evita" and "Sister Act"

By Steven Suskin
05 Aug 2012

Cover art for "Jaws"

"The Godfather" exploded on the world screen in 1972, breaking records and looking to be the biggest film ever. Only three years later it was eclipsed, money-wise and otherwise-wise, by Steven Spielberg's Jaws [Universal]. This was only Spielberg's second film; the instantaneous success established him as one of the world's leading directors within days.

It is of little moment — watching the 1975 film 35-odd years later — to recount the way it singlehandedly changed the feature film world, but "Jaws" instigated a thorough change. At the time, important movies opened at a handful of theatres in select cities; Radio City Music Hall, for example, was a prime spot. (The "Godfather" opened in just five theatres.) After a number of weeks, it would expand to additional cities, then to additional theatres in the same cities, and eventually widen until you could see it just about anywhere. An occasional film did open in numerous theatres, but these were usually titles that the studio was convinced would quickly die.

Realizing that they had a likely blockbuster on their hands, the producers and the studio wondered why they should make eager ticketbuyers in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco (et al) wait months and months before "Jaws" got to Boston, Philadelphia (et al). Why not just open it everywhere, at once? Nobody had done it before, but Universal took the plunge and opened "Jaws" on 464 screens simultaneously. I remember front page coverage, not just about the movie but about the audacious marketing. (Instead of doing separate marketing campaigns spread over months of openings in different cities, "Jaws" was able to do one enormous initial push. Including an unheard-of national television campaign.) The results were jaw-dropping at the time; the Spielberg thriller became the first film to break the $100-million mark in rentals.



This instantly changed the way things were done, for better (in the case of blockbusters) or worse (in that flop movies flopped more loudly). The phenomenal business enjoyed by "Jaws," meanwhile, doesn't necessarily mean the movie is any good. But it is, as can be seen on the new Blu-ray edition. The 26-year-old Spielberg turned what could have been a mere adventure tale of three men on a shark hunt into a primal cinematic experience. We have seen many thrills and chills and surprises over the years, but there aren't many moments that compare with that moment. (If you don't know which scene I refer to, it's time to watch "Jaws.") This is on a level with the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 "Psycho" and the lesser-known but equally effective bathtub scene in Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Les Diaboliques." Each of which seem to scream out don't go in the water. Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss make a compelling team, managing not to be overpowered by the big fish. Shark, that is. There is also a nifty score by John Williams, which instantly moved him into the top rung of film composers. The Blu-ray comes loaded with extras, including a new feature-length documentary about the film, "The Shark Is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of 'Jaws.'" Other bonus features are retained from the "30th Anniversary Edition" of 2005.

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Cover art for "Newsies"

Also of interest to three stage-related Blu-rays from the Disney family of studios. The current hit Newsies, now wowing crowds at the Nederlander, first saw life as the 1992 film of the same title. Life and near-death, as it was a famously disastrous flop. An after-life on cable and video turned the Alan Menken-Jack Feldman musical into a cult favorite, happily resulting in the present stage version. Here it is on Blu-ray from Disney on one disc, with a handful of bonus features from the old DVD release. Christian Bale, Bill Pullman, Ann-Margret and Robert Duvall star.

Over at the Marquis we have Michael Grandage's revival of Evita, which makes it an interesting time to watch the 1996 film version. Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce star. The Blu-ray, from Buena Vista, includes "The Making of 'Evita'" and Madonna's music video of "You Must Love Me."

Finally, Touchstone brings us a Blu-ray pairing of Sister Act (1992) and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993). Here are the original films, starring Whoopi Goldberg (along with Maggie Smith, among others). For those interested in screen-to-stage adaptations, a comparison of "Sister Act" (on film) and Sister Act: The Musical (at the Broadway, and soon to tour) should prove instructive.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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